THE BOUNTY OF BENGALI CINEMA

Two other works of great merit are being written about here by this writer , in this third part on the treasure trove of Bengali cinema courtesy Satyajit Ray’s masterclass.

Most of these appraisals are drawn from the strength of memory alone since the time I watched them so we have to realize that the impact borne by these masterpieces have earned them that honorific. Here they are.

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ARANYER DIN RATRI (1970)

Based on a story by Sunil Gangopadhyay, as was the norm with many Bengali films, ARANYER DIN RATRI (DAYS AND NIGHTS IN THE FOREST) is simply unforgettable owing to its linear yet dense exploration of humanity, propelled by an all male group’s getaway trip to Palamau ( now in the state of Jharkhand owing to its tribal antecedents) The folklore and the mystique of the place doesn’t occupy the narrative. Rather it uses the camera vis a vis the eyes of its protagonists and the audience to gauge reactions in a practical vein, as is supposed to be the case with urban explorers. Here, the four friends do not have a set plan and the langour of the location serves them well in taking a break from the city.

We all sense and mostly experience adventure in travel, even if it’s a simple road trip. Here the realistic stakes and the procrastinated, almost there level of unraveling becomes pivotal to the expedition as the men encounter another family of three consisting of a patriarch, his daughter (Sharmila Tagore) and daughter in law (Kaberi Bose)

The strain of attraction between her(Tagore) and the charismatic young advertising professional ( Soumitra Chatterjee) lights up a flame. The observational travelogue narrative then gets subsumed in the moment by moment intimacy among strangers. All participants partake this casual meeting of diverse personalities.

Among the cast, we are pleasantly surprised at the presence of the ever sophisticated SIMI GAREWAL, a great television host and actor, particularly when she mouths the lines, “Babu, pauwa do na( Sir, give me a drink)”, playing a local Santhal tribal girl.

The real tour de force is the extended sequence centring around them playing a memory game in which the first player names a personality or place, the others chime in with their own and hence each participant has to memorise the other’s given name, his / her own and so a whole series has to be remembered. The winner will be the one who gets all right in the given sequence. This commonplace touch is something that gripped me and I kept thinking that in an era not far away, this was the innocent ideal of recreation and pastime reserved for picnics and spontaneous get- togethers. The spontaneity of this scene is a typical hallmark of Ray’s writing skills. Only a Bengali narrative will pay attention to such a detailed study of communal bonding and intelligible reckonings.

However, this exercising of the grey cells also makes way for an observational game of flirtation, one upmanship, many personalities within the rural setting. Sharmila and Saumitra hint at a great sensual awakening within this and remain the finalists in the game while Shamit Bhanja leaves for a dalliance with the tribal girl (Garewal)

As we move on with the progression of ‘days and nights in the forest’ , the urban world doesn’t really enroach upon this placid backwater / forested reserve so much as jostle for space within these limited number of days. So the question of the hunter / hunted paradox given the jungle and its sylvan sorroundings is far removed from the equation. Although we know that this meeting is a fluke and will cease to exist beyond this particular trip for each.

Another pivotal aspect is the haze like party scene centring on Saumitra Chatterjee. Also the one around Shamit and his bitter conversation with his lady back home ( Aparna Sen), implying a break up.

Among the other men apart from Saumitra who leads the pack, Rabi Ghosh- the comic relief , Subhendu Chatterjee–the quiet observer , Shamit Bhanja – the impulsive young man and rising cricketer, all invite an intermingling of classes, backgrounds, occupations and natures.

The understated passion play of the sexes as in the scene featuring Kaberi Bose decked in finery, suggesting a picture of repressed seduction and desires owing to her status as a young widow and the impact of the revelation to Subhendu’s virginal mind, is almost hallucinatory and conveys the unexpectedness of it all. The poignancy of the stake for Kaberi reaches us. Ray succeeds in showing us a legitimate graph of interaction among the two genders of every contour.

ARANYER DIN RATRI made me ask another question. In this age of exclusivity and indiscriminate luxury, would we even think about spending our moments of recreation in the lap of unspoilt nature, even a remote forested reserve in today’s times?

This journey is without an announcement of intent or a black and white payoff. The complexity of human emotions is starkly portrayed with the kind of novelty possible only in Ray’s cinema. The cinematography by Soumendu Roy and music by Satyajit Sir himself are naturalistic and exemplary, hinting at no overt statement. DAYS AND NIGHTS IN THE FOREST is not to be missed because it will stoke memories of our own on trips undertaken by us.

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JALSAGHAR (1958)

JALSAGHAR (THE MUSIC ROOM) reminded me of P. B Shelley’s seminal poetic examination of male ego OZYMANDIAS, a poem we have all read since the time we were in junior school. In this clearly elucidated tale of a man from an erstwhile Indian princely estate / landed gentry in Bengal, we find echoes of the same unchecked exorbitant display of status that is passed down as some kind of pre-requisite to the malefolk of such prosperous establishments, especially in a lop-sided social scenario as ours, here in the Indian subcontinent. But then this is the symptom of an universal elitist suffrage, a right to bite off more than one can chew. THE MUSIC ROOM is unique as it shows the protagonist ( Chhabi Biswas) indulging in no vice but solely in his love for the classical arts vis a vis music and dance recitals commonplace in the homes of upper crust society.

The film begins with the memorable freeze frame of the zamindar as if the halo of riches has been preserved in a haunted portrait. Or a cautionary tale that so often gets trampled by the well off. It is an experience of a lifetime to watch this trenchant tale of images. The silent imagery is everything here beginning with this. The past and present intermingle to show us the secret alienation of those we often envy for their singular stature.

We discover that these musical soirees, instances of generational patronage are continued by him at the expense of the estate’s greater future prospects. His source of competition with a middle class neighbour (Gangapada Basu) who has risen to the ranks is another strain for his pride in the exclusivity of his own position. Who is a patron of the arts?, the film asked this viewer as it will others.

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Among the pivotal images from the screenplay, a few are especially effective, like the lightning on the overcast horizon invoking doom in the most naturalistic manner; another when the wife (Padma Devi) playfully asks him to not be naughty, reiterating his words to his son(Pinaki Sen Gupta) , before the latter two leave to go to her maternal home; the river water in spate and the receding coast by the later half, implying the change in fortunes.

Then comes the slow descent whereby the lone man of the house suffers from aristocracy’s final heaves. The idea of a higher living gradually morphs into an afterthought.

The crumbling mansion also made me question this Eastern idea of neglect. This is a zoom in and zoom out progression on wealth and an epicurean ideal slipping away at the hands of egotism.

Post Independence India had already abolished the once unbreakable ‘privy purse’ and so the aristocracy reeled from the aftereffect . The king, here, is left with his long serving servant (Kali Sarkar) like a ghost figure. Ray constructs it like an individual’s extended interior monologue and point of view.

Among other scenes, there is the final horse ride and a preceding shot of him driving away a bug from his portrait; that smug smile seals the deal for his own self destruction and simultaneous preservation . In the world of human interaction dwindling by the hour , his disintegration happens with non verbal creatures. But we enphatise with him because he knows no other way than to latch on to bygones and a storied history, extending it to a saturation point from where the present cannot benefit from vestiges of a glorious past.

In the film, stalwarts of the Indian musical pantheon such as Roshan Kumari portraying a Lucknow based danseuse in one of cinema’s unforgettable images ever , Lucknow’s very own Begum Akhtar( my city is such a cultural icon) , Ustad Waheed Khan, Ustad Bismillah Khan all appear – upholders of a classical conscience in recreations of the musical evenings central to the title. The music by Vilayat Khan attests to it.

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The contrast between the glory and the decay is well established by the cinematography and direction. It’s like a horror story, rendered with sepia toned clarity, shadowing the passage of an era for the upper echelons ; the most resonant and perforating look at the ennui and internal decay of the gentry.

As the lead, Chhabi Biswas is splendid, with his hauteur, vulnerability, pride and lonely calibrations adding to a great distillation of hubris by way of impaired judgement and humanity under duress. Based on the novel by Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay, it transports us to the psychological realm of this universal tale . Among other things, the musical performance by Roshan Kumari, the vocal rendition in it, the rhythm and the fluidity is etched in my mind. JALSAGHAR /THE MUSIC ROOM is unmatched in its artistry and revelation of truth.

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IN THE NEXT POST, I will write about Bengali and by extension global milestones by Ray, namely APUR SANSAR and CHARULATA.

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